Nothing New Under The Sun

This article has already been written. It has been possible to find it online for over a year prior to my writing it. I am not creating original content, but simply re-producing what already exists. Look, here it is…

image1The above screenshot is taken from The Library of Babel. This is an online resource based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The library consists of approximately 104677 virtual books. The pages within each book consist of 3,200 characters. In total, every single possible combination of 3,200 characters can be found within the library.

In other words, every poem, story, joke, script or opinion piece that you or I have the potential to write has already been generated by an algorithm and is currently sitting somewhere within the vast library.

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Another fun idea – the library of babel also contains any perfect prediction about the future, you just need to know where to look. For example, if only I knew to look at this page a few weeks ago:

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But of course knowing where to look is precisely the difficulty. For each correct prediction of the future, there are a colossal number of incorrect predictions, surrounded by an even more gargantuan sea of incomprehensible gibberish.

The reactions I’ve encountered to the Library of Babel have ranged from intellectual curiosity, existential angst and melancholia, but also near-complete apathy, due to the aforementioned problem.

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Personally, I’m not sure what to make of the library. Whereas the original story is certainly an interesting thought experiment, I find the fact that this now exists, albeit in digital form, at least a little spooky. Furthermore, the online Library of Babel also has an image catalogue, containing every combination of possible images (pixel location and colour) within defined parameters.

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But with increasing developments in technology, will the library stop at images? What about all possible permutations of audio files? Or video clips?

One definition of creation, as given by the Oxford Dictionary, reads ‘The action or process of bringing something into existence.’

In a post-Babel world, to what degree can we continue to think of ourselves as creative beings in line with this particular definition? Arguably, we do not create in the true sense. We do not produce anything of genuine novelty. We cannot will matter into being, from the abyss of nothingness. We are at best able to combine the materials provided to us in ways that we recognise as meaningful.

The Library of Babel contains millions of tales of love, loss, companionship, betrayal, revenge, stories which, if discovered, would become international bestsellers. Yet the library itself cannot recognise the value of these over and above a myriad stream of non-sequiturs. Only we can isolate and accentuate the truly important amongst an ocean of random noise.

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(Thanks to these guys. And also these too).

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Huw Evans says:

    [Before I begin my rant, may I say that it is directed at the Library and its perpetrators, not at Ian, who has performed a service in bringing this to our attention – and I think I need to apologise for my apology as that makes him sound too much like Jeeves. Sorry Ian.]

    Well now, as a writer of poetry (and other stuff) am I quaking in my luddite boots? Shall I take up my sledge hammer and march on the Library to destroy it?

    I shall not. Because I am no more threatened by this than by the revelation that a collection of molluscs on the floor of the Atlantic have formed themselves, at random, into the next line of the poem I am writing.

    When it was a story it was an intriguing story. Now it is real it is dull. The programmers have broken a work of art as surely as if they had thrown acid over the Mona Lisa (yes, I am getting carried away, and I’m rather enjoying it).

    But am I threatened? Only to the same extent as the minister Mark Twain spoke to on leaving church one morning.
    MT: I’ve got every word of your sermon in a book at home.
    Minister (outraged at the imputation of plagiarism) But I assure you I wrote the sermon myself last night. What book is it?
    MT: A dictionary.
    (Collapse of stout party (sorry, not really required, it just fits the Victorian Punch format of the anecdote).)

  2. A bit of vitriol on the Sputnik comments page. At long last!

    Couldn’t you see it in another way though? Isn’t the Library of Babel in itself a work of art that presents us with the message of Ecclesiastes and our inability to truly create original work in a neat and eerie new way?

  3. Huw Evans says:

    I’m in a disagreeing mood this afternoon. The writer of Ecclesiastes was a disappointed old grump; probably turned down by all of Jerusalem’s publishers.

    If Ecclesiastes really says we can’t create anything original (which I don’t think it does), then all the Tolkienesque talk of sub-creation becomes just that, talk, and we will spend eternity watching re-runs of The Simpsons (and even that will pall after a few millennia).

  4. Ian Johnson says:

    I don’t believe the Library of Babel threatens human creativity.

    Yet it (arguably) demonstrates the difference between ‘creation’ as applied to human endeavors and ‘creation’ when referring to the action of God (‘true’ creation, if you will). I personally find this humbling/useful as I have previously mentally equated the two.

    The second thing I find humbling about the library is that it reminds me that the things I produce are not of value just because I have ‘created’ them. I have previously been mistaken in ascribing worth to things which have taken me considerable time and effort simply by virtue of that fact and that to me they appeared novel.

    However, I may be thinking about this too hard.

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